“To Delhi, O’ Hindus, the army of the Prophet will soon return,” reads a giant mural over the entrance of the Jaish-e-Muhammad’s headquarters at Bahawalpur, in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Inside the building, there is a swimming pool, stables, training grounds and accommodation for hundreds of students.
Ever since 2014, Masood Azhar — imprisoned by Pakistan’s intelligence services after his cadre were found to be involved in an attack on former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf — has slowly reemerged on the jihadist stage.
Indian intelligence officials have said the organisation was responsible for Saturday’s strike on an Indian Air Force base — its first major operation in India since an abortive 2005 strike on a makeshift temple in the Babri Masjid complex.
The recruits being trained at the Bahawalpur seminary as well as bases in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir has, however, become a growing concern for India’s security services. Long before the Pathankot attack, the Jaish had carried out multiple strikes in Kashmir, and had promised more in videos and propaganda articles posted online.
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In his book Fathul Jawwad, Azhar wrote: “The life of nations depends on martyrs. The national fields can be irrigated only with the blood of the best hearts and minds.”
Formed in January 2000, soon after Azhar was let out of an Indian jail in a hostages-for-prisoners swap, the Jaish was intended to unite a welter of jihadist groups which had been fighting in J&K as well as in Afghanistan. It was endorsed by a cross-section of jihadist clerics representing the Deobandi clerical tradition in Pakistan.
In 2000, Azhar’s newly formed group staged the first suicide-bombing in Kashmir, killing nine.
Azhar imposed himself on India’s consciousness again in 2001, ordering an attack on Parliament House in New Delhi. The strike took India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
In the wake of 9/11, though, the Jaish came under enormous stress. Musharraf, found himself forced into an increasingly bloody showdown with the Jaish’s constituent units. In late 2001, Maulana Abdul Jabbar, the Jaish’s overall military commander, began pushing for attacks on western targets in Pakistan, leading to a split with Azhar.
Many young jihadists also broke ranks with the Jaish to join more radical al-Qaeda-linked groups.
From 2003, matters came to a head as breakaway Jaish operatives were found to be involved in attacks on Musharraf himself. Later, elements of the group were involved in the July 2007 stand-off between the army and jihadists who had occupied the Lal Masjid in Islamabad.
In the wake of these events, former ISI chief Lieutenant-General Javed Ashraf Qazi candidly told Pakistan’s Parliament that it “must not be afraid of admitting that the Jaish was involved in the deaths of thousands of innocent Kashmiris (and) bombing the Indian Parliament”.
Azhar’s decision to stand with the Pakistani state at this moment cost him legitimacy as a jihadist leader. Pressure from the West also worked to push Azhar into hibernation.
From 2013, though, the ISI again began to cultivate Azhar, in an effort to use pro-government jihadists as a counterweight to anti-Pakistan jihadists. He found a ready pool of cadre in southern Punjab. “Having no alternative ideology like Marxism or Liberalism which may challenge the feudal stranglehold, Deobandi militancy remains one of the few ways to counter it,” said social scientist Tahir Kamran.
The second coming of Azhar, the Pathankot strike shows, could provoke a crisis no less significant than those he sparked off in 1999 and 2001.